Woolf Works: an Interview with Edward Watson

Ed Watson in rehearsal for Woolf Works

Ahead of tonight’s premiere of Wayne McGregor’s much anticipated Woolf Works, a full evening of ballets inspired by author Virginia Woolf, we spoke to his long-time collaborator and muse Edward Watson. Ed told us about Wayne’s concept, what we audiences can expect from this ambitious new project and his 15-year collaboration with the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer.

TBB: Why is Wayne doing a ballet based on the works of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Watson: I guess the way she writes is quite similar to the way Wayne works with choreography, in the sense of how he would go about telling a story or explaining a character. You don’t really get that linear narrative the whole way through: you stop and there’s a sense of feeling and emotion about what that person is feeling, rather than just telling a straightforward story. That was probably the main appeal to him. There’s the way she describes things, the way you feel emotion from what she writes, strong images rather than gripping storytelling. I think that is very much his point of departure and then he chose to take three stories – Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves – to focus on.

Ed Watson and Akane Takada in rehearsal for Woolf Works

Ed Watson and Akane Takada. Photo: © ROH Andrej Uspenski

TBB: Which of these stories are you involved in?

EW: I’m in parts 1 and 2, Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando. In part 2, all the dancers represent Orlando in some way, in that sense of gender change and time travel, different periods. There’s a lot of structure and sometimes you are left without it, and the piece is quite like that: formality and then chaos. Even the costumes are a bit like that too!

In part 1, I am the character of Septimus [Warren Smith], and I am very much that person telling that section of the story. People say that Virginia wrote Clarissa Dalloway very close to her own feelings, and there is a lot about the fact that Septimus and Clarissa are almost doubles of the same person, so when you know that background, it helps. In this part, Alessandra [Ferri] is also playing a double role: sometimes she is Virginia and sometimes she is Clarissa, while in The Waves she is the former.

TBB: So are they all independent parts connected by a common thread?

EW: Oh yes, they are very different stories.

TBB: How did Wayne adapt his choreographic language to fit these 3 different stories?

EW: There are some subtle differences between them, but you can tell it is all Wayne. The first part is very gentle and intimate, playing with real people and real people’s memories, but also characters from the book and the relationships that happen in those stories, so it is quite personal.

Alessandra Ferri and Ed Watson in rehearsal for Woolf Works

Alessandra Ferri and Ed Watson in rehearsal for Woolf Works. Photo: © ROH Andrej Uspenski

TBB: You have worked with Wayne for a long time…

EW: Yes, it must be something like 15 years, Symbiont(s) was back in 2000!

TBB: … So how did this collaborative process evolve over the years? And what are your own highlights from all that?

EW: It is still the same for me: I just love the concentration, I love the work, I love making something new, and I can never predict what Wayne is going to do. I can never come up with something I’ve done before and maybe that’s what he appreciates. I’m just ready for anything, and that is what I like about working with him. The shows are always a wild ride. It is such a concentrated focus because often the one-act pieces are such a short stretch of time, yet you are ‘full on’!

I will always remember Symbiont(s) in particular, the first piece he created on us, because we were relatively unknown and there was also the fact that it was his first work here. It was staged in the small space of the Clore Studio and Wayne didn’t have much of an international name like he has today. We were making it during our lunch breaks and after we had finished for the day, and everyone was thinking ‘Wow, who is this man?’. And on a personal note, it also marked the start of a career. So that stands out. But there was also that evening with the world premiere of Chroma, DGV and The Four Temperaments, which was quite an event. Plus, I love the little things he has done for us for galas. He did this duet for me and Natasha (Osipova), when she first arrived which was amazing and we’ve only performed it once. It’s very nice to do those special little things.

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in Woolf Works.

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in Woolf Works. Photo: © ROH Tristam Kenton

TBB: Woolf Works must be such a big milestone for Wayne…

EW: Yes, I think this is the first big one. Whether you want to think of it as a 3-act ballet or not, it is the first time he has had the main stage of the opera house for himself for an evening to do whatever he wants in three hours. And that’s what he’s done and I think it is a clever way for him to use that time.

TBB: How much do you need to know about Virginia Woolf’s works to appreciate the ballet?

EW: I don’t know what they are putting in the programme, but I think if you arrive and watch with no prior knowledge, do pay attention to the relationships between people and the set up. I think if we do our job as performers, you’ll get it. If you don’t, then it will be our fault, not Wayne’s…

Alessandra in rehearsal for Woolf Works. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Alessandra in rehearsal for Woolf Works. Photo: © ROH Tristram Kenton

TBB: How do you think it will be received?

EW: You never know! People change, they might love it when it’s all new and when they think they’ve seen it, they go ‘no, that again’. Or not. It is always the same with whoever has been making pieces at that level for a really long time, be it with Chris [Wheeldon] or Wayne. It is hard to constantly surprise and to constantly re-awaken people to you. It is the same as being a dancer. When you start out, people wonder ‘who is this person?’ and when they get used to you then it’s ‘oh, it is him again’. Yet, there are certainly some amazing moments in this evening, which are like a punch in the face. And other moments that just draw you in: subtle and gentle -  which you might not expect from Wayne – really moving and tiny in a way.

TBB: And what’s in it for you as a dancer, how do you ensure it’s always new?

EW: By keeping my mind open, always remembering it’s a new thing. Just because I’ve worked with Wayne before, it doesn’t mean it will be the same. It is a new challenge: a new project, a new story to tell, new movements, a new piece of music to interpret, a new person to dance with sometimes. It is that really. That kind of freshness!

Ed Watson in rehearsal for Woolf Works

Ed Watson. Photo: © ROH Andrej Uspenski

Woolf Works runs until 26 May 2015 at the Royal Opera House. For information & booking visit the ROH website.

Photo credits: ©ROH, 2015, photographed by Andrej Uspenski, Tristram Kenton.

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).


  • May 12, 2015


    Tx Shelby! The ballet does indeed sound fascinating – going tomorrow and can’t wait :) Hope all is well across the pond!

  • May 12, 2015


    Really enjoyed this interview! I’m a huge fan of both Ed Watson and Wayne McGregor… This ballet sounds fascinating! Thanks for sharing :)